Hanoi was our first stop in Vietnam, it was where we flew into and where we based ourselves to explore the surrounding areas. I’ve never really been culture shocked by the places I’ve visited, except Egypt when I was thirteen, but Hanoi was definitely an over load on the senses. It was loud, over crowded, and I was in constant fear for my toes every time a motorbike whizzed past or a car tried to squeeze by. It was a bit much and took us a few days to become accustom to the chaos.
Chaos aside it’s a great place to base yourself for your first tastes of Vietnam. From here you can explore Sapa, cruise Halong Bay, do day trips to Tam Coc and the Ninh Binh area, get lost in the Old Quarter, and eat delicious street food.
We were there about a week and that was too long if you ask me, but we were slow to get things going in terms of plans and tours. Our plans for Hanoi were this:
- Halong Bay Cruise
- Tam Coc
- Wonder the Old Quarter
- Street Food Tour
- Water Puppet Show
We never did get around to seeing the Water Puppet Show but I’m hoping we’ll be able to get the chance somewhere else along the way. Instead we went to the Army Museum, I wasn’t a huge fan so unless you’re an Army buff, I’d give it a miss.
Unfortunately I found Halong Bay to be slightly disappointing. Don’t get me wrong, the scenery is beautiful but sadly all the garbage takes away from the view. There are plastic bottles and Cake cans floating around, and fishing nets, pieces of plastic, and tarp washed up everywhere along the islands. The water is gross and oily unless you’re in a sheltered bay, far from the more crowed places. And talk about crowds, there are boats everywhere. Yes, it makes for those great classic photos you see everywhere with the limestone cliffs and boats with Chinese sails, but at night there is so much light and noise pollution you can’t even enjoy the nature of the place.
We chose our particular boat because the guy at the booking agency (and the company’s brochure) advertised that the boat went further out into the park/bay which would mean less traffic, cleaner water, and we’d anchor for the night where there would be no other boats, this however was not the case.
NOTE: The company was Rosa Cruise and we booked with a tour agency right by Vietnam Backpackers in the Old Quarter. It advertises with a big TripAdvisor sign above the door, and the man who runs it is an English speaking British man. DO NOT BOOK ANYTHING HERE. There is a great little booking agency a door or two down called Dao’s Travel Agency (1A Ma May St), we consulted a quiet english and vietnamese speaking American (or Canadian, I couldn’t tell), he’s great and doesn’t push anything you don’t want to buy. He will suggest the companies he works with but will book another company if that is what you want.
Other than the false advertising, the cruise and boat were really nice. We got to see a pearl farm and learn about how it’s run. They offered squid fishing at night and Tai Chi in the morning, as well as a cooking class in the afternoon of the last day. We got enough free time to sit and relax, enjoy the scenery and lay in the sun. We also got to do some kayaking, swimming and jumping off the boat, and got to see Sung Sot Cave which had a great view point by the bay that made for great photos.
Tam Coc was absolutely gorgeous. They call it Halong bay on land and they couldn’t be more right. The scenery is pretty similar to Halong Bay if not more stunning, the difference being instead of water there are rice paddies.
We did a full day tour of the Ninh Binh area where we walked around the ancient capital of Vietnam, Hoa Lu. Now the only things that remains of the 10th century capital are temples that were built in the 1700’s, on top of the foundation and ruins of the anicent palace.
We took a row boat through Tam Coc, floating along rice paddies and under caves and cycled through rice fields and learned how rural people live and how Vietnamese families function.
One thing to beware of is your row boat guides will ask for a tip before you even return back to land. It is customary to tip, and we never mind doing it, but we found our guide very rude when asking for it. There will also be locals on their own boats offering to take your picture and when you get back to land be prepared to be harrassed to buy one of the photos. They come already laminated and we did end up buying one (it cost less than $1), but only because we didn’t get a good photo of the two of us on our own. At one point I even had a woman hitting my arm repeatedly trying to get me to buy a photo after I had already said no several times. Just be prepared, a simple ‘No Thank You’ will not deter them.
Street Food Walking Tour – Old Quarter
We were recommended this tour by a Canadian couple we met on our Gibbon Experience and we immediately jumped on it. It’s a pretty decent price at just $20 a head, you can book the same one here if you’d like to give it a go.
If you didn’t know this already, we like to eat. I’m not talking like, we’re constantly eating, I mean we enjoy going out for meals, trying new things and new restaurants. One of our favourite things about travelling is eating the local food. If we have to choose between a decent hotel or spending a little extra on a good meal, we’re chosing the meal.
This is one thing we’ve learnt while travelling: Compromise. If we want to go have a good night out, we sacrifice a good meal and/or activities that day, if we want a good meal (and I don’t mean at some high end restaurant, I mean if we want to go sit on tiny plastic stools on the sidewalk and order a bunch of new things to try) then we don’t go out and spend money on drinks, or if we want to do an activity that is a bit more expensive we don’t go out and we eat really cheaply (like 24 THB ham and cheese toasties cheap). It’s all about balance and compromise. We can’t have everything all the time, otherwise we’d never have lasted as long as we have.
Anyway, we like to eat. But here in Vietnam we had no idea what to order or what was good and being on a tight budget we can’t afford to order something and then not like it. So the food tour sounded like a great place to start.
We got to try:
- Bun Cha, Bun meaning rice noodle and Cha meaning the fried pork. This was by far our favourite.
- Spring rolls, Pillow cakes, and deep fried fermented pork (don’t dis it till you try it, it was surprisingly delicious).
- Vietnamese Green Papaya Salad, it’s not spicy like Thai papaya salad.
- Green sticky rice ice cream
- Black rice desert with caramel
- Vietnamese sandwich, we’d already been living off of these by the time of the tour.
- Sugar cane juice
- Egg Coffee, this was a weird one, the foam was made out of foamed egg yolks.
- Steamed hot rice cakes, we even got a chance to try making them.
We went to places we normally wouldn’t go to and tried things we wouldn’t normally try. It was a great experience and we would highly recommend it to any other foodies going to Hanoi.
The Old Quarter
The Old Quarter is HUGE, you could come here a dozen times and probably still not see everything. Most times when we get somewhere new we like to walk around and check out our new surroundings, but in here in Hanoi I didn’t even want to leave the hotel. It was so loud and busy, everyone always honking, it was madness, so we didn’t end up walking around as much as we would have liked. But what we did see what pretty cool. You can see the most random of things in this city. Once I saw a women selling gold fish off of her bicycle, like they were all individually bagged like they would be had you bought them at a pet store, but they were all bunched up and tied to her bike. Unfortunately we were in a minibus and couldn’t get the camera out in time. It was the most bizzare thing. You’d be amazed at the things they can fit on a bicycle around here, and just the things you can come across in general.
Hanoi functions much like it did in the old days, and by this I mean way back when there was a street for everything. If you wanted to eat, you went to the street with food, if you wanted beer, you went to the street with beer. If you want shoes you go to shoe street, you want clothes you go to clothes street, need your hair cut… well, you get the point. We found a street that just sold fans, one that just sold lighting, one that just sold homewares. We even saw one that just sold bamboo! It’s all something you’ve got to see for yourself, although if we were to do it again i’d probably do some sort of city walking tour.
Of course we forget the camera the day we went out explore and finding all these streets. Sigh.
Hanoi was way too busy and loud for our liking but it’s a place that shouldn’t be skipped. We’re now out of the chaos and heading south, stopping at Dong Hoi, Hue, Danang, Hoi An, Dalat and finishing in Ho Chi Minh City.